Reaching Out for Support When You Have a Mental Illness

[Content note: mental illness]

After having written tons of posts about supporting people with mental illness, I realized that there was a gap–I’ve seen few articles about how to reach out for support when you’re the one with the mental illness. Specifically, how to do so in a way that’s respectful of people’s boundaries.

This is a difficult topic, for reasons that I think are obvious. I don’t want to discourage anyone from reaching out for help, ever. I also want to encourage people to be mindful of others’ needs and boundaries, even when everything hurts so much that that feels impossible to do. Especially then.

Why do these two goals feel like they stand opposed to each other? They shouldn’t. Getting affirmative consent before sharing difficult and potentially-triggering things with people isn’t just good for them, it’s also good for you. Most of us who struggle with mental illness have our moments of panic about imposing on others or being a burden on them. Making sure that we’re actually getting their consent before leaning on them for support can help us with those feelings.

I’ve been on both sides of this. I’ve been the depressed and suicidal person who had to reach out for help, sometimes in ways that didn’t really allow people to say no. I’ve also had people reach out to me in ways that made me feel trapped and coerced. So I think I have a lot of empathy for everyone in both of these situations.

This is a huge topic and this post is very long, but it still doesn’t cover all the nuances. This post is focused on the issue of consent and boundaries specifically, so please don’t be too disappointed if it doesn’t cover everything you thought it would. Suggestions for future posts are welcome as always.

Consent, Consent, Consent

The most important thing about reaching out to someone for support with a mental health issue is to explicitly ask for their consent to have this conversation. This means that, rather than sending them a sudden wall ‘o’ text on Facebook, you might first say, “Hey, can I vent to you about depression for a bit? You can respond whenever you have a moment.” Or in person, if the topic hasn’t come up organically in a way that suggests that they’re ready to hear about it, you might say, “Can we talk about some ED stuff I’m going through right now?”

If you want to talk to someone about things that are fairly likely to be triggering–examples include self-harm, suicidal ideation, eating disorders, homicidal ideation, and so on–it’s a good idea to include a content note. In a message or text, that can just look like “TW: anorexia”; in person, you might say, “Can I talk to you about some eating disorder issues I’m having. I might get into detail.” This is important because 1) the person you’re talking to might have their own issues, which you may not necessarily know about; 2) they may be in a space right now where seeing a sudden wall of text about a very serious topic might really stress them out; and 3) regardless, people can often help you better if they have some idea of what you’re going to talk to them about, especially when it’s something pretty serious like that. When I see “Hey, can I talk to you about anorexia?”, I put myself in a different headspace than when I just see “Hey, can I talk to you about some stuff?”.

When you message someone to talk to them about Heavy Stuff and do not give them a warning about the content or an opportunity to politely bow out, understand that you are making it very difficult for them to say no to you, especially if they’re not someone who feels comfortable asserting boundaries (and most people aren’t). You may not intend to make them feel this way, but that’s the effect it often has when you don’t check in to see if it’s okay first.

I’ve gotten sudden walls ‘o’ text while in class, while on dates, when I was just about to fall asleep in bed, while finishing an assignment on deadline, and all sorts of other inopportune times. It put me in a serious bind, because on the one hand I had a really serious message demanding my attention, and on the other hand, I had things that I needed to be doing. When someone suddenly sends me five paragraphs about having an eating disorder and being suicidal, it feels incredibly wrong to say, “I’m really sorry, but I’m busy right now and can’t talk.” I usually do it, but that’s only because I’ve developed very strong boundaries over the years. Most people haven’t.

Another way that you may unintentionally make it difficult for people to set boundaries is by getting their consent for a certain type of conversation (“Hey, got a minute to chat?”) and then, once they agree, making it clearly way more than a minute and more than just a “chat” (“So I’m really really depressed and I think I’m about to lose my job and I just don’t know what to do, I’m almost out of savings and–“). Phrases like “got a minute to chat” and “hey what’s up” are vague, sometimes intentionally so. Once someone gets into a conversation with you, it’s almost impossible to then be like, “Um, actually, I thought this would just be a casual chat; I’m not really available for a conversation like this right now.”

If someone tells you that no, they cannot talk/listen right now, respect that answer, even if it feels unfair or unreasonable. They may in fact be lazy. They may in fact be selfish and callous. They may in fact completely not understand what you’re going through and if they did then they’d listen. They may in fact just be shallow people who want everything to be sunshine and daisies all the time. They may be all of those things, but they still deserve to have their boundaries respected.

The Importance of Being Specific

Consent is one reason why, when you’re reaching out to someone for support, it can be helpful to be as specific and clear as possible about what you need from them. (I say “as possible” because that can be really difficult when you’re in a moment of crisis.) If they know what they’re being asked to do, then they can actually consent to it. But taking a moment to think about what you need from others right now will help you, too–it’s easier to get what you need if you know what that is and ask for it:

“Hey, I need to just vent at someone about some depression stuff. Would you be able to listen for a bit?”

“I’m feeling down and it would be helpful to distract myself. Could you come over and play video games with me?”

“I’m feeling unsafe tonight. Is it ok if I spend the night at your place and just do my own thing with someone else in the room?”

You may, like me, be concerned that if you let people know you’re having a hard time, they’ll try to offer you types of help that you don’t need. In that case, it can be a good idea to be clear about what you’re not looking for, too:

“I’m going through a really rough time. I don’t really want to talk about it, but could we just chat for a while about something else?”

“I’m having a really bad day. I’m not really up for talking to anyone, but could you send me some cute animal videos?”

What if you want support but have no idea what would help? In that case, being specific is clearly impossible. I think it’s better to be transparent and say something like, “I’m feeling really bad and to be honest I don’t know what would help right now. I just wanted to reach out to someone.” Hopefully, your support person might have some ideas about how to help or what to say.

The reason this sort of transparency is helpful is because otherwise, the person might assume that you do need something specific and you know what that is, but that they need to somehow intuit it. Or they may ask you what they should do, which can be stressful for you to have to respond to.

As a more long-term strategy, though, it might be helpful to try to figure out what other people can do that would help you feel better, so that you know what specifically to ask for from them. If you have a therapist, they can help with that project. If not, you can ask others who struggle with similar issues (maybe on a support forum if you don’t know anyone personally) what works for them. Just because you have similar issues doesn’t necessarily mean the same things will work for you, but there’s a good chance you’ll find something.

Why This Can Be So Hard

Back to the issue of boundaries. For many of us, the pain of mental illness is so strong that it’s hard to empathize with someone who says it’s too much for them to hear about. Resentment can build. You think: “They can walk away from this conversation, but I have to live with this my whole life.” When someone is unable to listen to us talk about how awful we’re feeling, that can kick up those feelings of resentment.

But just as we ask our friends, partners, and family members not to take it personally that we have a mental illness, we should try not to take it personally when they have their own feelings and limits. There’s a reason psychologists have a concept called “vicarious traumatization,” and a reason why therapists and social workers have such high burn-out rates. Of course, you may not be asking them to do anything close to what a therapist does, and they may not experience it as “traumatization,” but the point is that being very close to someone’s pain can have an impact. In addition, your support people may be dealing with their own mental health issues, which you may or may not know about. They may want to listen to you, but may be unable to because of what it brings up for them.

One last thing I want to say about this is that for me personally, depression made it really difficult to see how my own pain was hurting others. I don’t mean in that awful way that we talk about, where people take our pain as a personal insult or expect us to be happy all the time. I mean that seeing someone you love in pain hurts. Legitimately. But when I’m depressed, I think I’m so awful that I don’t understand how anyone could possibly care that I’m hurting–even though I reach out to them with the hope that they’ll listen. (Mental illness causes many such contradictions.) And when they say that they care so much that it’s really difficult for them to hear about it, it sounds like they’re insulting and patronizing me, presumably to “get out” of having to listen to me. That this perception is often wrong is something that I had to recover from the worst of it before I could understand.

Self-Forgiveness

Reading this, you may realize that you have overstepped boundaries in the past. (Or maybe you already knew this.) Mental illness can make people feel like they’re horrible and deserve to die, and realizing that you have overstepped boundaries may exacerbate this.

Try to be gentle with yourself. Mental illness can provoke boundary-crossing behavior, and while it’s important not to use this as an excuse not to work on it, it also means that you’re not a terrible person, and you can get better–both in terms of boundaries and in terms of your symptoms themselves.

Talking about this issues presents what The Unit of Caring refers to as a competing access needs problem. Some people will really benefit from this advice. Some people may already be so terrified of violating boundaries that they almost never ask for the help they need. (This may be surprising given that I wrote this post, but I’m squarely in the latter group.) Mental illness also complicates matters in that people may simultaneously be excessively terrified of crossing boundaries, while also sometimes crossing boundaries!

If you feel that implementing this advice will do harm to you, then don’t implement it. However, I would posit that it would actually be helpful for most people, because my core message here isn’t “You should be Very Very Careful about not violating anyone’s boundaries,” but rather “Hey, here’s how to reach out for help in a way that respects people’s boundaries.”

Supportive People Who Aren’t Really

One reason you may be terrified of crossing boundaries is because you may have done your due diligence and followed all this advice and then still had people tell you that you’ve overwhelmed and burdened them and they never wanted to help you this much but felt obligated to. There’s a lot going on here, such as:

  • Poor boundaries on the part of those people
  • People being used to passive communication and reading unspoken messages into your words that you never put there (such as, “If you don’t help me I will hate you/hurt myself/etc”)
  • A duty-centered view of relationships (believing that being your friend/partner/family member obligates them to help you whether or not they want to or can safely do so)
  • Simple ableism: believing, however implicitly, that your mental illness makes you so weak and helpless that they are ethically obligated to help you, no matter at what cost to them

The plentiful existence of people who act in these ways makes it difficult to talk about boundaries and mental illness. If we’re constantly accused of being burdensome and asking for too much no matter how careful we are, that can easily obscure the fact that sometimes we really do reach out to people in ways that make them feel like they can’t say no. But remember: both of these things can be true, and are true. They sound contradictory but are not.

There’s no simple way to fix this problem. If you’re not sure whether or not you’re being mindful of boundaries, it might be worthwhile to consult a friend that you trust to be honest and ask them for feedback. And if you notice that there are people in your life who keep telling you that it’s okay to vent about your feelings or to ask them to take you out for ice cream but then it turns out that they never wanted to help you and only did it out of a sense of obligation, it might be time to downgrade these people from “friend that I ask for mental health support” to “acquaintance that I talk about Marvel films with.”

Whatever their reasoning for not being honest (or not being aware enough of their own needs to be able to be honest), it’s not a healthy dynamic. It’s the sort of dynamic that leads many of us to feel like such awful burdens all the time. It’s the sort of dynamic that can make it really difficult to take this blog post seriously, because if people are constantly calling you a burden when you’re not, you may not be able to recognize the ways in which you might actually be crossing boundaries.

Of course, supportive people are difficult to come by and it can feel counterintuitive to stop going to these people for support when they seem to be acquiescing. (And if you ever feel like it’s a matter of life or death, please, do whatever you need to do to keep yourself safe.) But they’re not, in fact, supportive people. If they were, they would properly set boundaries with you in a way that’s compassionate but still assertive. Pretending to consent and then blaming you for believing them is an unkind and unsupportive thing to do.

~~~

If you are in crisis and do not feel safe, and none of your support people are available to talk to, please call 911, go to the ER, or call one of these hotlines if you don’t feel safe doing the first two things:

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
  • The Trevor Project (for LGBTQ youth)
  • Trans Lifeline

“The Good Ones Say No”: Why Purity Culture and Rape Culture Are Two Sides of the Same Coin

[Content note: sexual assault/coercion]

Alice Dreger, professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University, recently livetweeted her son’s high school sex education class. (Here’s her article about it.) The results were…about what you’d expect, if you’ve been following the news about high school sex ed. Students were warned that condoms frequently fail (as in, 18% of the time) and that premarital sex can lead to drug abuse and imprisonment and (obviously) teenage pregnancy.

But the most disturbing thing in the whole livetweet, for me, was that bit about going for the girls who say no:

This is how purity culture and rape culture are two sides of the same coin.

On one side of the coin is the idea that only “good” women are worth anything, and only women who consistently refuse men’s advances can be “good.” Of course, this creates a paradox: if women are only “good” as long as they refuse, and men could only ever want to get emotionally (and materially) invested in “good” women, what happens when a woman stops refusing?

So either men are supposed to only have sex with virgins and only once, or they’re supposed to indefinitely stay in relationships that are not sexually fulfilling (because there is no sex), or they’re supposed to coerce and rape women. The latter option is the only way to have sex with someone who says no, by the way.

And that’s why rape culture is the other side of the coin. If saying no is the only way a woman can be “good” and therefore desirable, if pushing past “no” is romantic and sexy, if sex is only morally acceptable if the woman didn’t really want it–then rape is acceptable. Not all rape, of course–most purity culture adherents would probably be horrified at stranger-in-the-bushes rape–but I would argue that accepting some rape is equivalent to accepting rape, because as soon as you accept that it is okay to violate someone’s consent in some cases, you will be able to justify violating someone’s consent in any case where you have a motivation to justify violating their consent.

Of course, people who endorse views like “the good ones say no” would be quite offended by what I just said. After all, they’d say, a woman need only say no until she is married to a man. Then she can magically undo years of sex-negative messaging and have a healthy, fulfilling sex life with her husband. More easily said than done.

But this has consequences far beyond wrecking individual people’s sex lives. The idea that “the good girls say no [until marriage]” implies that women frequently say “no” when they really mean “yes,” or wish they could say yes, or whatever. This is one of the beliefs that is most frequently used to justify sexual assault and coercion.

Of course, even if someone says no to sex that they actually want, that’s no excuse to pressure them into bringing their actions in line with their desires. If I say no to a party I’d really love to attend because I have to write a paper instead, it’s still wrong to pressure me to go. If I decline to go on a trip with you that I really wish I could go on but cannot afford, it’s still wildly inappropriate to just buy me the tickets and then expect to be paid back. Most adults understand that we can’t and shouldn’t always do what we want to do regardless of the consequences, and people who don’t understand this are people that I usually feel unsafe around.

And what of the unknown proportion of women who say no while hoping that their partners will ignore it and proceed anyway? Sexual predators claim that many, if not most women do this. (And many men have told me stories of how they dutifully took “no” for an answer, only to have the woman demean their masculinity and lose interest because of it. Needless to say, I still think they did the right thing and should keep doing it.) I don’t have statistics, but I can’t imagine this is very common. And regardless, there’s a simple solution–always believe someone who tells you “no.” If that’s not what they meant, they’ll quickly learn to say what they mean.

(And if not taking no for an answer is sexy for your and your partner, negotiate a kinky scene that’s consensually nonconsensual.)

More broadly, I think this is a small part of how we get that cultural message that resisting is sexy (when women do it). Think of how many romantic scenes in books and movies hinge on a woman saying no over and over until the man finally wears her down and she agrees–or he just straight-up physically forces her.

Some people say that this is sexy because there’s just something inherently sexy about chasing someone. (But only for men, for some reason.) I don’t know about that. More likely, as Emily Nagoski writes in her excellent book, Come As You Are, there is little about sexuality that isn’t learned.

And certainly it’s okay to find it sexy and to incorporate it into your life in a consensual way. In fact, one of the vignettes in Nagoski’s book features a couple trying to do exactly that. The problem is when women are taught that refusing is the only way to be sexy, and when men are taught that “chasing” a woman who refuses is the only sexy thing to do. And that’s exactly what the sex ed class that Dreger livetweeted tried to do. The speaker implies that women who don’t initially say no aren’t worth pursuing at all.

(Obviously, this particular class will not be the only way that these teens will get this message, and if it were, I wouldn’t be writing this because it’d be a drop in an otherwise-empty bucket. But it’s a drop in a very full bucket, and we have to empty the bucket drop by drop.)

When girls get the message that saying no makes them sexually/romantically appealing, they lose touch with their own boundaries and their own sense of what they want*. When boys get the message that girls who refuse are playing coy in order to attract them, they learn to ignore any intuitions they may have about respecting boundaries and not pressuring people. I hear from a lot of men who are so clearly uncomfortable with the idea of pressuring women into sex, but are nevertheless convinced that they must do it because it’s just what men should do. Why do we persist in teaching young people this convoluted and contradictory way of thinking about sex?

Most of the controversy about abstinence-only and otherwise sex-negative sex ed is that it teaches teens falsehoods about safer sex and STIs, and that’s true, and that’s scary and wrong. But there’s a lot more lurking in these lessons than medical misinformation.
~~~

*I just want to add something here for all the women who find it sexy to be pressured in certain ways but not in other ways or some of the time but not other times or at first but not once you pause and really think about it: there’s nothing wrong with you. We’re taught to ignore our own intuitions about what we want, and we’re taught that men know what we want better than we do. In some situations, you might truly be okay with someone pushing you to do things, whether it’s because you trust them or for any other reasons, and in other situations you might not be. My advice is to do the difficult work of figuring out what you want, not what other people think you want, and then go about getting that by being clear with your partners about it.

I’ve felt that flutter in my chest when I watch movie scenes that are totally not consensual and I sometimes wish that would happen to me, and then I remember that it has happened and it was never like it was in the movies and I never turned out to want it. Maybe someday it will happen like that, but in my own experience, these things are better negotiated and brought out into the open rather than assumed.

And guys who date women: you need to try to understand these dynamics if you’re going to date women ethically. What men often write off as women being “fickle” or “complicated” is actually just us trying to negotiate some peace treaty between all the competing messages we’ve been given about our bodies and our sexualities. Negotiating peace treaties, as you may know, can be messy, difficult, and time-consuming. That’s life. For the time being, that is. Until classes like the one Dreger attended never happen anymore, and the things said there are never said anymore.

Reading Nonverbal Cues Without Making Assumptions

Sometimes when I talk to people about the importance of reading nonverbal cues–in sexual situations and also in general–they tell me that they avoid doing so because they don’t want to “assume.” Paying attention to people’s nonverbal cues feels to them like making assumptions about people’s internal states based on very limited information.

Not wanting to leap to unwarranted conclusions about people’s thoughts and feelings is an admirable goal, but I think there’s a misconception at work here about what reading body language means in a practical sense, and I think that pop psychology is partially to blame. We’ve all seen those Cosmo and Psychology Today articles that are like “Ten Ways To Tell If He’s Into You Based On His Eyebrows” or “Your Kids May Be Lying To You: Just Check The Position Of Their Feet To Know For Sure.”

As exciting as it may be to literally read people’s thoughts and intentions based on the position of their feet or eyebrows, I’ve yet to see any actual research evidence for any of this.

Even psychology textbooks spread this false “mind reading” meme. I’ve seen sentences like “We are all expert mind readers! For example, this study shows that people can generally tell if a person in a photo is angry or happy.”

No wonder some people think that when I ask them to pay attention to things like body language and tone, I’m asking them to do the impossible and read minds. And no wonder some people also think that when I ask them to pay attention to things like body language and tone, I’m asking them to leap to wildly specific conclusions like “This person’s tone of voice suggests that they are sad and not really paying attention to our conversation because they’re thinking of their mother who’s in the hospital.”

Here’s how this works in a more practical sense. Yesterday morning I took an Uber to the airport. It was 5 AM. I had had about four hours of bad sleep. The following conversation ensued:

Driver: Where are you going?

Me: LaGuardia.

Driver: Which terminal?

Me: 3.

Driver: *laughs loudly* Oh, no, LaGuardia’s terminals are A, B, C, D. You’re thinking of JFK!

Me: Whoops. It’s C then.

Driver: Where are you traveling to?

Me: Ohio.

Driver: Where in Ohio? Cleveland? Columbus?

Me: [city].

At this point the conversation ended, and we didn’t speak again until we arrived at my airport and he wished me a safe trip and I wished him a nice day. I presume it ended because I was answering as briefly as possible and my tone was completely flat. I was literally only giving the driver the information he was asking for (whether because of social norms or because of a need to get me to my destination) and volunteering nothing more. I wasn’t reciprocating my driver’s cheerfulness and bubbliness at all.

Maybe I hate small talk. Maybe I’m exhausted. Maybe I’m sick. Maybe I’m feeling really anxious about flying. Maybe I’m on my way home to see a seriously ill family member (thankfully, I was not). Maybe I just personally hate this driver with all my heart and do not want to say a single word more to him than is absolutely necessary. Maybe I hate all people. Maybe I have depression.

The cool thing is, it doesn’t matter! The driver correctly picked up on the fact that, for whichever of many possible reasons, I wasn’t feeling like talking, so he stopped trying to talk to me after that brief exchange. No mind reading was necessary. All he had to do was pay a minimal amount of attention.

The conversation could’ve gone very differently. Sometimes when I am in fact less tired and physically miserable, I do engage Uber drivers in conversation because I like talking to people. It could’ve just as easily been like this:

Driver: Where are you going?

Me: LaGuardia!

Driver: Which terminal?

Me: 3, I believe.

Driver: *laughs loudly* Oh, no, LaGuardia’s terminals are A, B, C, D. You’re thinking of JFK!

Me: Oh, oops! That’s the one I usually fly out of. I meant C.

Driver: Where are you traveling to?

Me: [city], Ohio. I get to see my family this weekend!

Driver: That’s wonderful! Do you get to see them often?

Me: No, not too often, so it’s always special when I do. Does your family live nearby?

And so on. I’ve had a lot of conversations like this.

And for all the driver in that parallel universe knows, maybe I’m just in a cheery mood. Maybe I love small talk with strangers. Maybe I’ve been feeling really lonely and just want to connect with someone, anyone. Maybe I just drank two coffees and have energy that I just need to use somehow. Maybe something about this particular person appeals to me and makes me feel like chatting. Who knows? Clearly I’m interested in having a conversation, so he would feel comfortable continuing it.

Incidentally, many people would consider the way the conversation actually went to be a “failure”: either because I “failed” to respond to this person’s attempt to engage me in conversation, or because the driver “failed” to keep trying to get me “out of my shell” or whatever. I’m not exaggerating; some people really do think this way. Some people would ask me why I didn’t just have a friendly chat with the nice man. Other people would ask him why he’d just stop trying and let his passenger sit there in silence.

But I think that our interaction was a complete success. I was able to enjoy (insofar as I was able, at 5 AM) a nice, quiet drive. While I obviously can’t presume how the driver felt, his body language and tone when we said goodbye at the end of the drive suggested that it went just fine for him too. Nobody had to bend over backwards out of a sense of obligation or politeness.

Unfortunately, while this experience isn’t entirely rare for me, it’s not as common as it should be. I have had people who know me far, far better than this driver–enough to know that I generally dislike small talk and that I tend to be extremely fatigued, for instance–try to engage me in small talk despite monosyllabic responses, flat tone, and closed body language from me. Some of these people intentionally wanted to cross my boundaries in this way, but not all of them.

And I’m specifically talking about the ones that didn’t. I’m talking about the ones who on some level expected me to directly state, “I do not want to have a conversation with you right now” before they would stop trying to have a conversation with me. On some level, they thought that reading nonverbal cues is unnecessary because direct, effective communication means that I should have to verbalize “I do not want to have a conversation with you right now” every time someone tries to engage me in a conversation that I don’t want to have.

Maybe this seems like a reasonable assumption, but in that case, as an experiment, keep track for a day or several how often someone makes small talk with you (or something else in that vein) when you’d rather they didn’t and wish they would stop. Imagine if they never, ever stopped unless you either left their physical vicinity or said, “I do not want to have a conversation with you right now.”

It would be exhausting. It would be completely exhausting if every time I’m too tired, stressed, worried, sad, physically uncomfortable, focused on something else, or otherwise mentally occupied to have a conversation, I had to explicitly state this or else the person would continue trying to have a conversation with me.

And here’s the thing–you don’t have to have any idea at all what’s going on with me to pay attention to the fact that I’m acting like I don’t want to talk right now. You don’t have to read my mind. You just have to notice, “Huh, they’re not making eye contact and they’re answering monosyllabically.”

At that point, a number of things can happen. You can just stop, like the driver from this morning did. You can say, “Sorry, it looks like this isn’t a good time. Catch me later if you want to talk?/Should I leave you alone?” Often the response will be something like, “Yeah, I’m just really tired right now. I’ll talk to you later.” Or it might be, “Sorry, I’m just a little out of it. Keep talking, I’m listening.”

No discussion of nonverbal cues and the importance thereof is complete without an acknowledgment of the fact that some people have a lot of difficulty with this. That’s okay! That’s why it’s so important to provide resources that help people learn how to read nonverbal cues, because otherwise many people just assume that this is something we all “naturally” know how to do. But we don’t, for all sorts of reasons such as neurodiversity or cultural differences. For instance, if I grow up in Russia and learn how to read nonverbal cues as a Russian person, I may not be as effective at it if I suddenly move to the United States.

And it’s also important to note that we may misinterpret nonverbal cues from certain categories of people because of preconceived notions we have about those people. The nonverbal cues of disabled people may be inaccurately perceived as angry. The nonverbal cues of (white) women may be inaccurately perceived as insecure or uncertain. The nonverbal cues of Black men may be inaccurately perceived as threatening.

In general, if you know that you have trouble interpreting nonverbal cues in useful ways, you can supplement that with direct, verbal communication. That can look like, “I’m not sure if you feel like talking right now or not. It’s okay if you don’t, but can you let me know?” Or it can look like, “Hey, I have a lot of trouble reading nonverbal cues. If we’re ever talking and you don’t feel like talking anymore, can you please say so directly so that I don’t accidentally keep bugging you?”

I want to be careful and not hold nonverbal cues up as some perfect, ideal way of getting information about people’s needs and feelings. There’s a reason why people are cautious about nonverbal cues and wary of making assumptions based on them.

However, refusing to observe and respond to nonverbal cues also puts a lot of pressure on anyone who wants to exit a social situation or be given more physical space or be left alone or whatever. It’s reasonable to assume that someone who doesn’t make eye contact, closes their body off from you, answers tersely, and generally shows no interest in continuing a conversation probably has no interest in continuing a conversation. But if you’re unsure, you can always ask.

Why Madonna Should’ve Asked Drake for Consent

[Content note: sexual assault]

My latest Daily Dot piece is about Madonna and Drake’s kiss at Coachella.

When Madonna took Drake by surprise with a kiss during their Coachellaperformance, the pop singer made waves on the Internet, provoking discomfort and disgust. Some of it was because Madonna is “old,” while others argued Drake’s reaction suggested a lack of consent.

However, on Tuesday, the Canadian rapper responded on his Instagram, clarifying that he had no problem with what happened and thanking Madonna for the impromptu make-out session:

Why Kindergartners Need Sex Education

[Content note: mentions of sexual assault]

My latest piece for the Daily Dot takes “Princeton Mom” Susan Patton to task for her assertion that children do not need sex education, especially not in schools. 

College may be too late to effectively change the deep-seated attitudes that some people, especially men, learn about sex and other people’s bodies. That’s what makes early sex education so vital. Patton seems to draw a false distinction between sex education and teaching children not to touch people’s bodies without their consent:

I think what we’re talking about here is body awareness or bullying or verbal harassment or recognize what somebody else’s space is and don’t violate it and don’t touch it, and keep your hands to yourself. This isn’t sex ed, these are manners.

Teaching children about consent does not necessitate describing sex and rape to them in graphic detail, and nobody is actually suggesting that we do this. In fact, “developmentally appropriate” is a term that gets used a lot in these discussions, and while it can be a slippery concept to define, it’s clearly being taken seriously by advocates of early childhood sex education.

Teaching consent does necessitate explaining to children that only they get to say who can touch their body, and that it is wrong to touch someone else’s body without asking them first. Parents can model this in a number of ways, even with very young children—for instance, by asking them if they would like to be tickled, stopping immediately if the child says to stop, refraining from forcing their child to hug or kiss relatives, and reminding the child to ask other children before hugging or touching them.

However, it’s not enough to hope that parents will do this. Although Patton claims that this type of education has no place in schools, not all parents agree that they should teach it, either—and, crucially, not all parents have the capability to provide the frequent supervision and feedback that it might entail. Some parents are single parents. Some work two jobs.

This is where schools come in: teaching children the things they need to know to eventually become responsible, capable adults. In this regard, respect for consent and bodily autonomy is as important a lesson as reading and writing. Without it, there is no way to be an ethical person.

Read the rest here.

On Mishearing “Get Consent” as “Don’t Have Sex”

[Content note: sexual assault]

This fall, the new affirmative consent law in California, which requires all universities that receive state funding to adopt definitions of consent that translate roughly to “only yes means yes” rather than simply “no means no,” reignited a number of age-old debates about the meaning of consent and sexual assault. One of them is the claim that anti-rape advocacy is attempting to redefine perfectly good sex as rape, and that in this new climate, men cannot ever be safe from being accused of rape no matter how careful they are.

Remember, by the way, that this is not new. This is not a California’s-new-law problem. This is a very old problem.

This article was published before the law passed, but it’s still very relevant because I’m hearing these sorts of objections, especially in response to the law, all the time. The authors interview a number of college men (and those who work with them) who say they are much more careful about hooking up now that there’s such a focus on campus sexual assault. For instance:

Pollack said a patient recently told him about making out with a girl at a party. Things were going fine, the student said, when suddenly a vision of his school’s disciplinary board flew into his head.

“‘I want to go to law school or medical school after this,’” Pollack said, recounting the student’s comments. “‘I said to her, it’s been nice seeing you.’”

More anecdotally, I’ve heard these sorts of remarks too. “I don’t even bother asking women out now,” or “I haven’t had sex for years because I’m scared they’ll call me a rapist.” I feel sad for these men who clearly want sexual intimacy but feel that they have no choice to give it up. And I also feel angry, because this is not what we’ve been saying, and yet they insist that we’re telling them they can’t have sex at all.

Countless writers, educators, and activists have weighed in on what consent is and what it is not and how to communicate around it. If you Google “what is consent,” the first page has numerous resources meant to help young people learn what consent is, such as this one and this one. Don’t like reading? There are graphics!

Yet (some) men insist that this is all so mysterious and perilous that they have no choice but to avoid the whole enterprise altogether.

I don’t want anyone to be lonely, insecure, and sexually unfulfilled. I don’t want anyone who wants to have sex to be unable to have it. I want everyone to have the confidence to pursue and find the types of relationships they’re interested in. I want everyone to feel worthy and valuable even if they haven’t found a partner yet.

But I also want people to pursue all of this ethically. That means that if you’re ever unsure if someone is consenting, you stop and ask. And if you don’t think you are able to do that, then you should abstain from sex until you are able to do it.

~~~

I wish I could explain consent to all of these men. I wish they could attend one of my workshops about consent, where I help people learn to understand body language, find language to help them ask for and give consent, and show how these skills apply to all areas of life, not just sex.

But I’m not sure how much of the misunderstanding is innocent rather than willful. The information is out there. So many people are working hard to make it available to college men. I’m not sure how much else I personally–or we collectively–can do for people who may not want to learn and change.

If we keep saying, “Make sure your partner is consenting!” and they keep hearing, “Women are mysterious fickle creatures who sometimes call random things rape just to screw you over,” I’m not sure how much responsibility we can accept for the misunderstanding.

Especially since many people have a vested interest in perpetuating this misunderstanding. It serves their purposes. They think it makes things easier for them, even as it causes so much more anxiety and fear and pain than embracing affirmative consent as a standard.

~~~

Sex, with all of its possibility to hurt, will probably always bring up fears, including the fear of overstepping a boundary and hurting someone. That is not a pleasant feeling; I know because, as someone who was not socialized to feel entitled to others’ bodies or attention, I feel it. Communicating clearly and expecting nothing less than clear communication from my partners helps relieve that fear, but a little bit of it is a good thing. It helps us remember that we have the power to hurt.

Right now, though, the predominant fear is one many people, women and gender-nonconforming people especially, face–the fear of having our boundaries willfully ignored. I won’t speculate about which feels worse. It is possible that someone who doesn’t have to face a high likelihood of being sexually assaulted feels subjectively as bad when they imagine the possibility of “accidentally” assaulting someone as I feel when I imagine the possibility of being assaulted (on purpose).

But for me, personally, the fear of being assaulted is so much worse. Because there are ways–ways that aren’t discussed nearly enough–to reduce my risk of assaulting someone to approximately zero without any undue burden on me. There are no ways to reduce my risk of being assaulted that are effective and that to not impose an undue burden on me.

This is why I am glad that men are starting to feel that surmountable fear. I don’t want them to live in terror. I don’t want them to avoid sex out of fear. (That would be how the other half lives.) I do want them to accept their fair share of the responsibility, though. And yes, that means more fear than they may be used to.

Ezra Klein says as much in a provocative Vox piece:

If the Yes Means Yes law is taken even remotely seriously it will settle like a cold winter on college campuses, throwing everyday sexual practice into doubt and creating a haze of fear and confusion over what counts as consent. This is the case against it, and also the case for it. Because for one in five women to report an attempted or completed sexual assault means that everyday sexual practices on college campuses need to be upended, and men need to feel a cold spike of fear when they begin a sexual encounter.

~~~

When I first read that Bloomberg piece about waning “hookup culture,” my initial reaction was, honestly, to shrug. Let them be scared. Let them avoid sex and intimacy. I’ve certainly done that because I was afraid of sexual assault.

But then I thought, this isn’t really the way forward. At least, not entirely.

These men don’t seem to be afraid in that rational, “Shit, I could really hurt someone! Better be careful” way. They seem afraid in a reactive way, almost out of spite–“See, look how much you’ve fucked up my life! Happy now?” They seem afraid because they keep interpreting consent education in the most negative and life-fucking sort of way. They seem afraid because they still don’t understand that their female partners are human beings with their own subjective experiences, experiences that they would do well to listen to and try to understand.

I don’t want men to live in fear. I don’t want men to stop flirting with women and asking for their number. I don’t want men to start refusing sex with eager, consenting women because what if they’re actually lying and not consenting.

I want them to listen to us. I want them to respect our agency. I want them to let us write the story together with them, rather than writing each chapter themselves and then handing it to us to read, perhaps accepting some critique if they are especially gracious.

Did Lena Dunham Sexually Abuse Her Sister?

[Content note: child sexual abuse]*

My Daily Dot piece about Lena Dunham went up yesterday, but I was out walking 14 miles of Manhattan so I didn’t have time to link it here. This was published before Dunham released her statement, which partially (but not nearly entirely) addresses some of my concerns.

Lena Dunham’s recently released memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, has stirred up a lot of controversy, and probably not the controversy that Dunham hoped to stir up.

Several passages in the book detail the Girls creator and actress’ childhood sexual experimentation with her sister, Grace, who is six years younger. After a conservative writer quoted the passages and accused Dunham of sexual abuse, the internet exploded.

The passages describe Lena Dunham playing with her sister’s vagina when Dunham was seven and her sister was one year old. She also writes about bribing her sister with candy so that she could kiss her on the lips and masturbating in bed next to her. Their mother was aware of at least some of the behavior, but apparently didn’t think much of it. “My mother didn’t bother asking why I had opened Grace’s vagina,” she writes. “This was within the spectrum of things I did.”

Not all of Dunham’s critics have been conservative columnists, however. Many women, especially women of color, have been active on Twitter, discussing the passages and how they exemplify the abuse that others have faced in childhood. These critics have started a hashtag called #DropDunham, calling on Planned Parenthood to end its partnership with her:

Meanwhile, others think there’s nothing wrong with Dunham’s actions:

 

[…]Did Lena Dunham abuse her sister? That depends on a lot of things, some of which we may not know without getting more information. However, there are a number of things about Dunham’s behavior as she describes it herself that bring up red flags.

Read the rest here.

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*Although I personally avoided definitively labeling Lena Dunham’s actions as child sexual abuse, I included this content note out of respect for those who consider it such and find it triggering.

Feminism Can Make You Better At Sex

At the Daily Dot, I wrote about sex and feminism. (What else is new.)

Does feminism make women bad at sex? Some “sexperts” would say yes, if being bad at sex means expecting to get pleasure out of it. In a blog for Yahoo’s lifestyle section, Dr. Pam Spurr, author ofSensational Sex, warns of the dangers of equality in the bedroom. “In the past few decades, women have learnt that orgasms, like voting and equal pay, are their right,” says Spurr. “This tide of female emancipation has led to a ‘princess-and-the-pea syndrome': her ‘pea’ gets all the attention, while everything else gets sidelined… The pea’s demands will eclipse those of your penis.”

Like Dr. Spurr, maybe some feel horrified and intimidated at the prospect of empowered women seeking out and expecting sexual pleasure from their partners, but in reality, feminism and good sex are not at all mutually exclusive. One can even lead to the other, if you use feminism to examine your own sexual ideas and interests.

To be clear, having feminist views does not automatically make you “good at sex,” whatever being good at sex means to you or your partners. You can be bad at sex and also be [insert literally any descriptor here]. You can be good at sex without identifying as a feminist, although I’d argue that you cannot be good at sex if you are unable to respect others’ boundaries.

However, feminism can inspire us to challenge myths and stereotypes that can make sex scary, stressful, or boring. Thinking critically about gender allows us to abandon tired and outdated ideas about What Men Want and What Women Want and what they “should” do with each other in bed. Here’s what feminism can teach us about sex.

1) Consent.

For decades now, feminists have been challenging dominant views of sex as something men must try to “get” from women, who can agree to “give” it by lying back and thinking of England. Feminism also challenges the idea that anyone of any gender ever “owes” anyone of any gender sex (though, usually, it’s women who are presumed to owe it to men, perhaps in return for a paid restaurant bill or a committed relationship).

Moreover, thanks to feminism, more and more people are starting to understand that consent is not just about “no means no,” but also about “yes means yes.” Being good in bed isn’t just about knowing the right things to do, but also about knowing when not to do anything at all. If you choose “YES, PLEASE” rather than “Ok, that’s fine” as the standard for consent, you’ll be a better partner, not to mention a better person.

Read the rest here.

Sexually Assaulting Someone As A “Prank” Is Still Sexual Assault

[Content note: sexual assault, sexist & ableist slurs]

A British YouTube personality named Sam Pepper recently posted a video of a “prank” in which he walks around grabbing random women’s butts as a joke and films their reactions.

Or, to rephrase: A British YouTube personality named Sam Pepper recently made a video of himself sexually assaulting multiple women, and then posted that video online, presumably without the permission of the women being assaulted in it.

To its credit, YouTube has taken the video down after a large outcry from (former) fans, various well-known YouTubers, and many Tumblr and Twitter users. In its place is now an odd notice: “This video has been removed as a violation of YouTube’s policy on nudity or sexual content.” As though the problem were “sexual content,” rather than sexual assault.

I’ll skip over all the tired rehashing of how this sort of thing seems to be Pepper’s M.O. as a YouTuber and as a human being, how Pepper’s boringly regressive ideas about women are easy to glean from the videos, how there’s now a backlash calling his detractors “butthurt little pussies” and “tumblr cunts,” how folks are claiming, as they always do, that this is somehow okay because some of the women laughed or smiled (because that’s what we’re taught to do to survive, and besides, other women literally said “I don’t like that”). Because all of this happens every single time and it’s a cycle with which many of us are now resignedly familiar. So I’ll jump straight to the analysis.

Sexual assault is not (just) a prank. A prank is putting rubber insects or plastic poop in your friend’s bed. A prank is coming home from school with a fake note from the principal to your mom. A prank is, in one slightly extreme case that I heard of, a bunch of friends getting together and having tons flowers and cards saying “Sorry for your loss” delivered to another friend at work, forcing him to explain to his concerned coworkers who he “lost.”

Pranks can run the gamut from wonderfully hilarious for everyone involved to scary, spiteful, and cruel. Pranks can cross the line. Even if we are to believe that Pepper did this because he thought it would be “funny” rather than because he wanted to make women feel violated and creeped-out, then this is a very unambiguous example of a prank that crosses the line. Specifically, it crosses the line into sexual violence and criminal activity.

Of course, this isn’t uncommon. Daniel Tosh made a video about touching women’s stomachs (specifically, their belly fat) and also encouraged his fans to make their own (which they did). YouTubers LAHWF and Stuart Edge made videos of themselves kissing random women on the lips without their consent and of themselves picking women up off the ground and trying to carry them away. All of this is assault. Not a joke. Not a prank. Assault against women.

Sam Pepper and Daniel Tosh and their sympathizers appear to believe that there are two mutually exclusive categories of human speech and behavior: “just a joke” and “not a joke.” Moreover, these categories are so painfully clear and obvious that anyone who mischaracterizes “just a joke” as “not a joke” is “an idiot,” “a r****d,” “a stupid feminist bitch,” etc. The only dimension on which items in the “just a joke” category can be judged is funniness. They cannot be judged on, for instance, ethics. So if you try to judge those items based on how ethically acceptable they are, then you’ve clearly placed them into the “not a joke” category and are therefore “an idiot,” “a r***d,” and so on.

Obviously, a joke can be funny or not funny to a given person. But it can also be experienced by a given person as not a joke at all, especially since many types of humor seem to rely on “saying a commonly-believed/-endorsed thing and then acting like you don’t really believe/endorse that thing” as their main mechanism. A joke can also be hurtful or unethical, even if everyone understands that it is a joke.

I hate to keep trotting out that “intent isn’t magic,” but it really isn’t. When I am being sexually assaulted, I don’t care what the person assaulting me truly deeply believes about this encounter and what it means to them and how they feel about it in their heart of hearts. I am being sexually assaulted. I would like them to stop sexually assaulting me now.

Now, if someone stumbles on the train and accidentally touches my breasts or butt, I might be momentarily startled, but I’m usually okay because I understand that they did not intend to touch me. Sam Pepper intended to grab the asses of the women whose asses he grabbed; he just didn’t intend–or pretends he didn’t intend–for them to feel uncomfortable or disgusted by this. Well, unfortunately, you can’t will people’s feelings in or out of existence.

Pepper later claimed that the video was a “social experiment”–the last resort of those who can no longer even claim a botched attempt at humor. If you unpack this a little bit, “social experiment” usually just means “doing something wrong/weird/unusual/inappropriate to see how people will respond.” You know, like a baby who discovers the ability to throw toys out of the crib to see what will happen.

There is no need to conduct an experiment to see how women will respond to being sexually assaulted by a stranger. It happens all the time, and has been happening all the time for centuries. If you’re curious, you could try speaking to a woman.

This also seems to be contradicted by another of Pepper’s claims, which is that everyone in the video gave “prior consent.” If the women knew exactly what was going to happen, how is it an “experiment” or a “prank”? And even if they did, how are viewers–some of whom may be survivors of sexual assault–meant to understand the original video?

On Twitter, Laci Green responded to Pepper’s defense of the video:

Nevertheless, it is entirely possible–and I am even willing to briefly entertain the idea–that Sam Pepper absolutely got the consent of everyone involved (for the touching and for the placement of the video online for the perusal of 2 million fans), that nobody was uncomfortable, that everybody involved had a great time (and the women who appeared uncomfortable in the video were just acting [why?]), but what concerns me is, as always, that others will see in Pepper’s defenses a get-out-of-assault-free card. “It was just a joke!” “She’s only pretending to be creeped out as part of a social experiment!”

Of course, this sort of thing already happens all the time. Rapists say that they were absolutely certain that they had the person’s consent and were totally not raping them on purpose, of course not, what kind of person do you think they are?

But believing that you have someone’s consent and totally not intending to assault them isn’t the same thing as actually having their consent and actually not assaulting them.

And I’m not so sure how many of them actually believe it.

~~~

Related/relevant:

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Addendum: Despite the title of the post I linked to just above, and the views I’ve expressed here in general, I no longer stand by the claim, “sexual assault isn’t funny.” The reason I don’t stand by it is because it’s false. Sexual assault is funny. To certain people. “Sexual assault isn’t funny” is more a statement that I wish were true than one that is actually true at the moment.

Handle Rejection Better With These Four Weird Tricks!

My new piece for the Daily Dot is about handling rejection on online dating/hookup sites. Note that, despite TDD’s headline, the piece is gender-neutral.

Tinder user and couch-based futures contract trader Tom isn’t the first guy whose explosively childish response to being rejected politely by a woman has gone viral—just the latest. Tom called the woman “fucking stupid,” insisted that she’s “not hot enough” to reject someone as high-earning as him, went through her Facebook photos and critiqued her appearance, and told her to “recognize superiority” and “know your place.”

Sure makes a girl want to come running back, doesn’t it?

The problem with Tom and guys like him isn’t (just) that they don’t know how to handle rejection but that they have disgustingly regressive and dehumanizing views about women. Changing their minds is probably beyond my ability.

But most people who have trouble dealing with rejection on dating sites aren’t like Tom; they don’t start bragging about how much money they’ve earned in the last few months or hurling invective. Rejection stinks and can make the best of us show sides of ourselves that aren’t exactly our best, but here’s how to make it suck a little less for everyone involved.

1. Once someone makes it clear that they’re not interested in talking to you, stop talking to them.

This is Consent 101, and many people still don’t understand it. When you continue to interact with someone who has said they don’t want to interact with you—and on dating sites, as with sex, silence should be taken as a “no”—you’re implying that your desires are more important than their boundaries. Even if you just want to know why they’re not interested, or make casual conversation about something else, it’s still wrong to keep pestering someone.

If you want to vent about how upset you are that the person rejected you, that’s totally understandable. But vent to someone else. Vent to a friend. If you don’t think you can vent to any of your friends, vent in a journal or on a secret Tumblr. If you have that kind of relationship, vent to your mom. (Moms are sometimes great for this.) Regardless, it is not the responsibility of the person who rejected you to make you feel better about having been rejected, even though they’re right there and typing that next message probably feels so easy and natural.

It always confuses me when I say I’m not interested and someone keeps trying to persuade me to be interested. Do these people really want a partner who’s only with them because they got tired of arguing about it? Sometimes when you’re really lonely and dejected about the whole dating thing, that can actually start to seem like a better deal than what you’ve got now. But it isn’t. Not only is coercion ethically wrong, but relationships based on it are not healthy, happy, or fulfilling. And they rarely last.

Read the rest here.